November 10, 2012
Yesterday, I got a care package. I walked out onto the side porch to get the mail and there it was – wrapped in a cut down cardboard box with enough clear packaging tape wrapped around it to put Humpty-Dumpty together again. At first, I thought the postman had left it there by mistake. Then I saw the handwritten address label, outlined by black, magic marker, under a big “TO:”, as if to say “Here, don’t miss this; it’s important!”
I recognized the handwriting immediately and smiled – a package from my sister. I gathered the other mail and the box and took them inside. After tossing the mail on my desk, I took the box in the living room, opened it and laughed out loud. Inside was a note that began, “Under no circumstances are you to send anything here … Jennifer [my niece] and I just wanted to surprise you … This box is filled with LOVE.”
Indeed, it was. The box contained an assortment of odds and ends – among them a couple of tubes of hand cream and a package of emery boards (for my “gardening hands”, I’m sure), a baggie stuffed full of cold brew tea bags and herbal teas (I’ve never learned to appreciate the taste of coffee), a large bag of M&Ms, a bag of Hershey’s chocolate drops (no explanation needed), a glittering green dragonfly and a glittering pink bird that I’m sure were probably sold as Christmas tree ornaments, with a note that said, “I thought these would look cute hanging in your garden room.” But it was the things she included that she hadn’t bought that made it a real care package – a photograph, taken by Jennifer on a trip to Oklahoma a few years ago, of one of the churches my dad had pastored during the Depression; a little pocket New Testament (battered and worn) my mom had carried for years and one of Mom’s flower print handkerchiefs. My mother believed a woman could never have too many handkerchiefs or too many headscarves.
Actually, Mom started the care packages. She sent them to my brothers when they left home to join the military, to us girls when we moved away to other cities and towns, to friends who were going through tough times and to complete strangers who faced a particular crisis in their lives. We never asked. They just showed up at odd times, usually when we really needed them. I never knew why she did it, but as I grew older, I followed suit – sometimes without really understanding why I did it.
Several years before Mom died, I helped her pack to move from a rental house to an apartment in a complex that catered to the elderly. We went through one drawer, closet, cabinet at a time, deciding what would be packed and moved and what would be thrown away. Going through her scarf drawer, I picked up a scarf I’d never seen her wear. It was old, faded and a little ratty around the edges.
“Throw away?” I said.
“No. I want to keep that.”
Something in her voice made me look up as I handed her the scarf.
“Did I ever tell you how I got this?” she asked. When I shook my head, she told me that, when she had been in the state hospital with her first breakdown, they had shaved her head and given her electric shock treatments. One day, before her hair had begun growing out, the staff lined up a group of patients for a bus trip into town.
She had nothing to cover her bald head and the thought of being shuffled off the bus and marched through the stores in town by staff was so humiliating, she thought of simply refusing to go, even though she might be punished for it. Just then, someone stepped up beside her and tapped her on the arm. When she turned, one of the other patients took off her own headscarf and handed it to my mother. “Here,” the woman said. “You can have this.”
Fifty years later, my mother’s eyes still filled with tears. “It made me feel human, again,” she told me. I realized, then, why my mom sent out the care packages and why they always contained something – no matter how insignificant it might seem to others – that would have personal meaning to the person who received them.
I think it’s why my sister and I have carried on the tradition – with each other, our own children, friends and even complete strangers – through the years. The three years we spent in the Children’s Home – half a lifetime for us younger children – were filled with dehumanizing moments. The rape, other physical and verbal abuse, the time an angry staff woman grabbed one of the boys in front of my terrified ten-year-old brother and held his head down in a sink full of water literally until the bubbles came up.
Yet, as with my mother, there were the “care packages”. A young staff woman who read stories to us each afternoon and who, when I pointed to one of the words one day and read it, worked with me after story time several time a week to give me the gift of reading – a gift that certainly saved my sanity over the years. The older staff woman who, taking me, sobbing, to the doctor one day, pointed out to me that her car, Pollyanna, was a magic car and demonstrated it by saying, “Watch the windshield wipers,” which, when she commanded Pollyanna to turn them on, sprang to life before my astonished eyes. Sheer legerdemain, no doubt, but to the crying five year old, it was magic. Those acts of kindness made the humiliated, depersonalized, “disappearing me” visible again. They humanized me once more and gave me something to hang on to.
Life, itself, can sometimes be dehumanizing. It is likely to become more so as the decline of the empire continues. I suspect that much of the anger people along the east coast are feeling right now is not just because the power hasn’t come back on yet, but because – in wiping out so much of their lives, what they had, who they were – Sandy dehumanized them. Those feelings are only going to get worse as our national downgrade gets worse.
So, we have choices to make. Right now, it’s fairly easy, when people are in trouble, to give to a charity, or send a care package to a family member, friend or neighbor in trouble. But as the economy worsens again, another disaster hits, the next leg of collapse comes along, we will have to decide what to do even as we may have lost everything. Having survived our own moments of depersonalization, will we shrug and say to the next person, “Well, you got what you deserved”? Will we actively participate in their humiliation and, in doing so, continue our own dehumanization? Or, will we heal ourselves as we reach out to heal others. The time may come that we can’t send a literal care package, but no matter how bad our own situation, we can still send those seemingly small “care packages” that say to one another, “I see you.” “Yes, you are still a human being.” And, yes, (as squiggley as some of you may feel at the thought,) “This box is filled with LOVE.”